He's the Manny
Manny Ramirez lives for his four or five plate appearances every night. The rest of what makes for his major league employment -- the necessity of having to wear a glove in the outfield, the need to run the bases (haste, however, not required), the infrequent intrusions from the media -- simply fill the time until the next occasion he can attack another at-bat the way John Nash might a thorny equation: with equal parts genius and joy.
He devotes tremendous work to his hitting craft, which is why, as he turns 36 next month -- the age at which Joe DiMaggio played his last season -- Ramirez still ranks among the most dangerous hitters in baseball, with an athletic body that hasn't changed much over the years and has much more left in it.
The seriousness of his career, however, can get lost in the comedy of his being, that whole "Manny Being Manny" vibe, which is both cool, because Ramirez is genuine about it, and cruel, because, well, is it really asking too much to run 90 feet with effort? He is a non-conformist in a conformist's game, not in the sense of a revolutionist, but more like a beat poet, this generation's Yogi, someone who doesn't so much want to change the world as much as he wants to enjoy it at his own rhythm.
One enduring image of Manny: On the night in 2004 when the Boston Red Sox were one win away from their first world championship in 86 years, Ramirez took batting practice and shagged balls in the outfield while listening to an iPod and taking swigs from a water bottle stuffed into his pants pocket, the very embodiment of moving to his own drummer.
Here is another: Last week at Yankee Stadium, which has become so much his own place that the New York State tax authorities might think about chasing him before Derek Jeter, Ramirez called across the clubhouse to an attendant that he was leaving for the indoor batting cage.
"Do you want your hot dogs brought down there?" the attendant asked.
"Yeah," Manny responded. "And two beers. Presidente."
Of course, Manny might well have been kidding.
The beauty of Manny is he is myth and machine. It's like telling a story about Babe Ruth. It may or not be true, but just the plausibility of it is enough.
With Ramirez, however, on the cusp of 500 home runs -- the Manny Meter read 496 Tuesday -- now is the time to get real on Ramirez. You might well be looking at a guy who will surpass 600 home runs, 2,000 RBI and a .300 batting average by the time he retires. But let's not wait to celebrate the greatness in our midst. Even today, Ramirez can make a case to be among the five greatest righthanded hitters of all time. For real.
You have to start out with two righthanded locks: Rogers Hornsby and Jimmie Foxx. Hornsby was a career .354 hitter who, beginning in 1920, led the National League in hitting, OBP and slugging for six consecutive seasons. Foxx was a devastating power hitter (534 homers, .609 slugging) who could have gone 0-for-700 and still been a career .300 hitter (he hit .325).
Surely, Hank Aaron and Willie Mays must be in the discussion. Ramirez would need more than 1,500 more hits to approach Aaron's 3,771. Mays had 3,283 hits. And we haven't even mentioned the home runs.
And where do you go from there? Albert Pujols will be in the discussion someday, but he's only 28. Vlad Guerrero? He also needs more time. Alex Rodriguez? His projectable career numbers are scary, but for now Ramirez is the better pure hitter with edges in average (.313-.306), OBP (.409-.389) and slugging (.594-.578) that Rodriguez is unlikely to overcome. Joe DiMaggio? His ability to make contact with a power hitter's profile was extraordinary, but war and early retirement cost him the prolificacy this discussion demands. (Ramirez already has more hits, homers and RBI.)
And then where do you go? Hank Greenberg? Too short of a career. Honus Wagner? Absolutely great, but it's difficult to acknowledge someone who played at a time when power hitting didn't even exist. Al Simmons? Great hitter, just not the same threat as Ramirez. Frank Robinson? He too often gets overlooked, but he was a cut below Ramirez. Frank Thomas? Amazing numbers, but you would take Manny over Frank in their best days.
See, you can't be wrong if you count the greatest righthanded hitters of all time on one hand and you put Manny in there. And he's not done yet, as his big April indicates. On the verge of 500, he's still one of the toughest outs in the game, a sublime hitter who rarely takes an off balance swing. Indeed, Ramirez's balance just might be his most extraordinary skill.
That statuesque pose of his after contact might annoy some -- especially for those frequent flyballs that stay in the park and don't deserve his admiration -- but it is the beautiful culmination of a swing without excess or strain. Of course, Manny being Manny, pockets askew, shirttail loose, pants sagging, he also does happen to resemble a rumpled pile of laundry before that sweet swing.